Politics Everywhere

Politics Everywhere: Oscar Voting Edition

Henry Farrell Jun 25 '09

John has had at least fifteen hours to comment on “this story”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/movies/25oscars.html?ref=movies and hasn’t, so I’m going to steal it from under him.

bq. In a surprise announcement the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Wednesday that it would double the number of nominees for the best-picture Academy Award to 10 from 5, returning to a practice it used more than a half-century ago when the number of films released was larger. … In a question-and-answer session that followed the announcement Mr. Ganis said, “I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up.” This year “The Dark Knight,” a critically acclaimed blockbuster fantasy, did not make the final list of nominees that included “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Reader” and the eventual winner, “Slumdog Millionaire.” None of those films were as widely seen as “The Dark Knight” or the animated “Wall-E,” another favorite that was snubbed by the best-picture category, adding heat to a debate about whether the Oscar voters had drifted too far from the moviegoing public.

As I read it, there is a three way distributional fight between (a) the producers of ‘Oscar’ type movies with limited commercial audience, (b) the makers of popular movies, and (c ) the producers of the Oscars (nb – I have no specialist knowledge about Hollywood worth talking about and am chancing my arm on a lot of the claims below). Under the _status quo ante,_ people who make ‘serious’ movies try to hype them up through campaigning for Oscar nominations (and wins) – while these publicity efforts are expensive, they are cheaper than conventional advertising aimed at a mass audience, and can pay off very well if the movie wins a major award allowing the movie to go into re-runs etc. People who make more traditional mass audience movies have less to gain from Oscar nominations (their movies will succeed or fail based on box office receipts in a compressed time period), and hence less incentive to push their movies. The producers of the Oscar ceremonies have a difficult balancing act between credibility (the awards have to have some relationship to some notion of artistic merit that is not dependent on commercial success if they are to carry cultural cachet) and mass appeal (if the slate of contenders is limited to subtitled five hour movies about the politics of cultural despair among Ukrainian tractor mechanics and the like, few people are going to want to tune in).

Clearly, the producers of the Oscars have decided to change the balance towards commercial production. This may in part be an over-reaction to an unusually weak set of Oscar contenders last year, with a heavy preponderance of non-commercial movies. How are the various sets of actors likely to behave under the new status quo? My first prediction is that we will see significantly fewer ‘serious’ movies being produced – one major channel of promotion for such movies is now less viable (assuming that these movies need a win more than they do a mere nomination).

My second prediction is that the new system may not favor commercial movies much more than the old system did – they are obviously more likely to become nominees, but I am not convinced that their chances of winning the prize will go up significantly. This is, frankly, a hunch as much as anything else – one would like to have access to voting data from previous years to figure out exactly what has happened – but I don’t see that there will be much more incentive to run expensive Oscar campaigns for commercial movies under the new system.

My third prediction is that we will see more variation in the genre of winners of the Best Movie award than previously – films like Wall-E will have a significantly better chance of being nominated, and hence of winning. I can see how the typical Oscar voter last year might have had qualms about nominating a movie like Wall-E given historical precedent – but I can also see how she might have ended up voting for Wall-E if it had been nominated, given some of the other dog’s dinners that were up for the award. Choices at the nomination stage are (I suspect) going to depend more on perceived credibility than choices at the voting stage (where voters are more likely to vote their sincere preferences) – if my suspicions are correct, this may lead to a mild improvement, overall in the quality of the final winner. As long as it stays light on the Ukrainian_tractor_mechanic_angst factor.